Some populations know that their rulers are doing right, while others feel aggrieved and let down by the rulers and their system. What makes the difference? The answer lies in the mixture of politics, popular culture and religion which contribute to defining the publically perceived legitimacy of a regime. Many regimes claim to be legitimate, but it is important that public perception also agrees with that claim, even in the more dictatorial states.

Legitimacy is conferred through many factors, but the most common include winning a popular mandate, hereditary succession, sharing ethnic or tribal blood with the population at large, as well as revolution against a failing regime. Others include espousing religious fervour, speaking the same language, and sometimes something as simple as being lucky.

Throughout history, one of the most powerful legitimising influences is for a government to find an enemy that they and their people share. People rarely fail to the flag, as US President George W. Bush found out after 9/11, and the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's failing first government was saved by the Falklands War.

All these factors are important, but they are topped by the most important of all, which is success. No one wants to support a loser, and a failing regime quickly loses its legitimacy. One of the most important mechanisms in any government has to be a capacity to re-invent itself, so as to avoid failure and stagnation. Social challenges change, the economic requirements move with the times and technology, the regional and global alliances shift with circumstance.

Losing their legitimacy

The decade long governments of Thatcher and Tony Blair both eventually ran out of steam, failing to appear in charge and losing their legitimacy to stay in power although remaining thoroughly legal, since in such a well rooted democracy as Britain, the system itself was not in doubt. Both problems were solved by finding new leaders who eventually went to the electorate for their own mandate.

The situation in today's Pakistan is very different. The resignation of president Pervez Musharraf was largely being made to realise that he had ceased to have legitimacy. This was not always the case, since when he came to power through an illegitimate military coup, he rescued Pakistan from the failing government of Nawaz Sharif, and Musharraf's first technocratic administration headed by Shawkat Aziz gained Musharraf some popularity and legitimacy.

The real problem in Pakistan is not so much losing a president, but that the system itself is up for grabs as the constitution gets re-written. This unnerves many Pakistanis who want a return to civilian government and more authority for the prime minister, but are not sure that the coalition members are disinterested enough to separate their own ambitions from getting Pakistan back on track. The challenge facing the politicians is to achieve legitimacy for the constitution.

Iran's presidency heads a government which swept to power on a popular wave of conservatism, but this popularity has been frittered away. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might have got away with his failure to manage Iran's economy, but his determined seeking out of the United States as an enemy has begun to wear thin. However, his political legitimacy would be restored quickly if Bush did him the favour of attacking Iran's nuclear sites.

Legitimacy is essential as it gives the people being governed a basic sense that the right people are in charge. But it is only half the battle, since a government also seeks to be popular. Many legitimate governments administer unpopular measures, but when a government is both legitimate and popular, the political pay off is huge and great things can be achieved.

The Arab world is still suffering from lack of such legitimate and popular leadership. Since the Egyptian presidency of Jamal Abdul Nasser during the 1950s and 1960s, no Arab leader has found the same mandate, yet the region desperately needs powerful leadership to find a way through the troubles it faces.

Traditional leaders

Despite Iraq being one of the traditional leaders of the Arab world, Nouri Al Maliki's government cannot deliver much, largely because it owes its position to the occupying forces of the Americans and their allies (who do not share blood, language, or religion, with the people, checking back to the criteria I listed earlier). Despite winning an election, the source of his authority remains with the Americans, which weakens him. Egypt was the historic leader of the Arab world, but in addition to being an American ally, it has also become marginalised as too many of its policies seem to be just more of the same, weakening its legitimacy in the wider region.

Strangely, some political leadership is starting to come from the previously retiring Gulf states, where the legitimacy of the governments is secured through hereditary succession, combined with their successful popular appeal. Despite their faltering moves to formal democracy, the Gulf governments score highly with their populations, and the combination of traditional authority with enlightened rule which also encourages their citizens to be educated and ambitious, has given the Gulf states greatly increased legitimacy in the wider region.

This has given the Gulf much greater regional authority in the Arab world than they had before, and had left an opening for the resurgent Gulf states to take a lead. The three important Saudi initiatives of the Abdullah Plan for peace in Palestine, the Taif Accord in Lebanon, and bring about the previous coalition in Palestine, all derive from the increased sense of purpose in the Gulf states.